News / Asia

UN Conference on Rising Asia Food Prices Agrees to Avoid Past Mistakes

Workers piling sacks of rice at a government rice warehouse in Manila (file photo)
Workers piling sacks of rice at a government rice warehouse in Manila (file photo)
Daniel Schearf

Representatives attending a United Nations conference in Bangkok on the rising cost of food in Asia have agreed to avoid restrictive measures that could lead to a food price crisis.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization brought together 19 countries in Asia, plus Japan and the United States, for two days of discussions on how to deal with rising food prices.

The FAO says globally, the cost of food in February reached the highest level it ever recorded and that prices could rise further as the price of oil goes up, affecting transport costs.

Ertharin Cousin is the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. agencies in Rome. She told journalists late Thursday that they agreed not to repeat past mistakes that contributed to a dramatic rise in food prices a few years ago.

"Where you saw a consensus amongst all the participants was in an understanding of the lessons from 2007 and 2008,” Cousin said. “Particularly, the types of policies that can exacerbate the high price situation like export bans and stockpiling of food. And, a recognition that those kinds of actions, while interesting, are not the actions that any of the countries would recommend to their policy leaders for the response to high prices in the short term."

Cousin says export restrictions and panic buying a few years ago was almost entirely responsible for food price hikes.

At that time the cost of rice, Asia’s major staple, doubled in a matter of months.

Hiroyuki Konuma, the FAO's representative for Asia and the Pacific, says Burma confirmed it recently banned rice exports, but that it was a precaution taken every year before rice harvest and not related to rising world food prices.

"Because, normally before rice harvest season there is a shortage of normally stock and price generally goes up,” said Konuma. “So, naturally government tries to keep enough stock and discourage exporting food to abroad."

Currently the retail price of rice is up in Bangladesh by 33 percent from last year and in China and Indonesia by 23 percent.

But the region’s major producers, Thailand and Vietnam, are having good harvests that are expected to keep prices steady overall.

Nonetheless, representatives at the U.N. meeting also agreed that countries should put in place safety nets to help women, children, the poor and others vulnerable to rising food prices.

They also pledged to better support investment in agriculture, which the FAO says has dropped significantly as a proportion of development assistance and national budgets.

Pushpanathan Sundram is the deputy secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"If you really want to meet the growing demand for food then I think we really need to put focus on research and innovation and technology,” Pushpanathan said. “Yeah, so I think, here is where again working the private sector will be one key aspect of achieving this important aim."

The Asia food price conference in Bangkok was the first of several regional meetings the FAO plans to help countries better deal with and prevent rising food costs.

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